First Time Diving on Koh Tao

I’ve always been curious about diving and being in one of the best dive spots in the world, now seemed like a good a time as any. My taxi picked me up at 9:30am and drove me 10 minutes down the road to my chosen diving school. I’d gone with Big Blue Diving because of the great reviews it has, plus its longevity on the island and the fact it’s PADI certified, however there are plenty of really excellent schools to choose from.

After first wandering into the equipment area by mistake, a non-english speaking local gestured to reception where I was met by Gus – an enthusiastic dive master – and his aged dog who set me up on the paperwork and introduced my to our instructor for that day – Chris.

There were only 3 students: myself and two Israelis on their honeymoon. Chris introduced us to Charlotte – another dive master – who would be supporting us and was to be my buddy for the day. It was the perfect size group. He spent some time going through academics, such as what equipment we’ll be using, underwater sign language and the skills he’ll be teaching us, before taking us off to be fitted for our gear.

Gear fitted, he took the two honeymooners inside to complete some online paperwork, whilst I chatted with Charlotte about the ins and outs of diving and had not one, but two chocolate croissants. They were good.

Before long, everyone made their way to the boat. What had started off as a lovely sunny day quickly turned into grey skies, heavy rain and rough seas. The first drop point was around 10 minutes away, but as we anchored the boat rolled hard. Myself and the other girl looked at each other holding our stomachs.

‘We will be fine once we get off’, I told her.

Chris called us below deck and showed us how to get into our tanks then how to get into the water: one hand on your regulator and mask, the other on your weight belt, then take a big step.

It’s incredible how quickly you sink.

Chris swam over and pressed the little grey button that would inflate my BC (Buoyancy Control) vest so I didn’t drown. Oh, technology.

With everyone in and very much buoyant, we began the looooong swim to shallower waters. It’s no exaggeration when I saw it must have been at least half a mile, which, no, doesn’t sound like alot, but let me tell you in choppy waves wearing nearly 50 pounds of gear, that’s a long ass swim.

Even when we got to water shallow enough to kneel in, the waves were so strong Charlotte had to hold onto two of us to anchor us down whilst we learnt five essential diving skills: how to clear your regulator of water (I wondered about that for years. Fun fact: did you know you can vomit into your regulator as it’s designed to take it), how to get your regulator back should you lose it or gets knocked out, how to borrow someone else’s regulator, how to empty your mask of a bit of water, how to empty a mask full of water. In spite of knowing that your only a few inches underwater, it feels very counter-intuitive to a.) breathe underwater and b.) take the breathing equipment away whilst still breathing out air. Every part of you tells you to hold your breath. (Side note, when your regulator is out of your mouth you exhale so your dive master can see you’re still breathing and aren’t in fact dead).

Once we’d grasped these key skills we headed off. As we weren’t going too deep the first time, the waves could still be felt a few meters underneath and the rough choppiness had started making me feel sick. I dismissed the first 10 – 15 minutes and forced myself to relax. Part of it was panic and adjustment to breathing underwater. I made myself look at the different fish and types of coral and keep breathing dive breaths; in for 3 out for 5. I looked up to the surface, to remind myself that it wasn’t so far away after all and saw speckles; it was raining.

But I couldn’t do it. I signaled to Charlotte the sign for ascend and swam to the surface a bit too quickly.

‘Are you okay?’, she asked.

I nodded and told her I just felt a bit queasy. I’d taken a travel sickness tablet back on the boat and hoped it would kick in soon.

Chris came up with the other two and checked on us. He encouraged me to be sick if I needed to as ‘I wasn’t the first and definitely wouldn’t be the last’. But that wasn’t going to happen I thought to myself. I explained I just needed a few minutes and floated gently on my back. And I did. A few minutes later, it felt like the sickness had passed and I was ready to go back down with the group.

However no sooner had we descended than the nausea quickly creeped back. Made worse I think by the pressure of the water, my weight belt and the tightness of the wetsuit around my neck. I tried to ignore it as before but couldn’t, so I turned to Charlotte, signaled to my stomach and gestured the sign for ‘up’. She looked ahead for the others, keen not to lose them and came up with me.

I didn’t feel well enough to continue sonwe started the long swim back, floating on our backs and kicking with our feet. This time, despite being above the water the sickness did not go away. It was raining hard and the sea was bobbing us about. Waves were pushed us back to shore and it took a huge amount of energy to go against them. Each wave made me feel just a little bit more sick and I noticed I had started to get clammy. I looked around me and tried to breathe through the sickness. I hoped being on something solid, like a boat deck, where I could sit down and have something to drink would ease me. I was wrong.

Charlotte and myself made it back first and I struggled to get up the ladders. My legs were shaking badly and I just knew something was wrong. I needed to get up there fast and started to panic. The tanks are heavy, the BC Vest was full of air and I still had my flippers on. Eventually I wobbled onto deck and suddenly felt very weak. Charlotte, who had been keeping an eye on me, must have seen me not looking so good and asked an Unhelpful Man (who at this point had just stood there and watched me struggle/sway) to help me get the tank back in the holder so I could remove the rest of the equipment. It might not sound like a lot, but maneuvering whilst wearing the tank is a two person job plus we had been loaded with extra lead weights to keep us down. I was carrying an extra 6.

A standard 80L air tank weighs about 32 pounds. For regulator, mask, fins, etc… add another 10 pounds. My weight belt had six weights on it so I’d be guessing if I said it weighed between 10-12 pounds. For those adding up, you can tell we’re on 50+ pounds of extra weight. Add to that rolling nausea and it’s hard to stay upright on an already shaky boat.

Unhelpful Man guided my tank into it’s holder and I quickly stripped off the jacket. The boat rocked from side to side. I felt shaky and clammy and tried to take some calming breaths. But it wasn’t working. I stumbled into the toilet, slid the door across and took some more deep breaths trying to steady myself. Right up to this point I thought it was 90% panic.

Then my mouth began to water followed by a nauseating rolling in my stomach. I struggled to undo my wetsuit which was squeezing my throat making me feel worse. I slid the door open.

‘Charlotte!’

She was stood by the tanks. She took one look at me bent over the toilet struggling with the back of my suit and immediately rushed over.

No sooner had she undone it and rolled off one shoulder, than I started vomiting hard.

Oh. The chocolate croissants.

It smelt awful and on the second hurl came out my nose too. To give her her full credit, she stood there the entire time with her hand on my back, making supportive sounds as my eyes streamed from the force of my mouth and nose ejecting my breakfast.

When I was done, she bailed water down the toilet to flush, washing the seat in the process where some had bounced back up, and ran upstairs to get me some water. I stood in the tiny toilet, eyes streaming from the effort, nose reaking from both smell and having sick come out of both nostrils. I looked out the door to the two honeymooners.

They looked over and mouthed, ‘are you okay?’. I gestured back the hand signal for sick although I was fairly sure that didn’t need explaining.

Turning round I caught site of myself in the mirror: crazy hair and yellow faced. That was about right.

Charlotte came back with some fresh water and after a good rinse I stumbled out. Chris looked surprised and mimicked my big smile back to me. ‘I feel so much better’, I said and headed up to the top deck for my own water bottle and to sit in the breeze.

Seasickness is a bitch.

I was true I did feel a lot better, despite the boat still rocking. After a few minutes Chris came up to check on me and offered me a seasickness tablet which at first I declined, but after another 5 minutes of heavy rocking I could feel the headache and sickliness starting to creep back so I accepted one and continued to drink.

The group reassembled and we discussed where our next dive site was and looked through a book at the different types of fish we might see, discussing the details of each one and were they poisonous. As a general rule, the brighter the animal (including coral) the more deadly it is. Obviously not little nemo fish, but a lot of others.

The second site was just the other side of the island so we soon geared back up. I was apprehensive – this time we were going much deeper and I wouldn’t be able to just bob back up to the surface if I needed to be sick again. Regulators are designed to take vomit and still allow you to breathe but I was reluctant to test it. However the nausea had subsided after taking that tablet and I had paid for this after all so I was determined to do it. Both instructors did a final check I was okay to continue, then we jumped.

On our second dive we followed a dive line which starts at the surface and takes you down 12 meters to the seabed. I loved this dive. Eradicated of nausea and away from the jostling waves, I felt so much more relaxed and able to enjoy it. There were fish of every colour and size, including a stingray; little blue ones like you get in your fish tanks back home, nemo fish (not the proper name), star fish, sea cucumbers, fish that go around in pairs mated for life, fish that hunt other fish. It was incredible. The coral literally buzzed and crackled with life. Above us, the sun shone through grey clouds and dazzled gently on the surface of the water. You really are in a completely different world.

We swam and swam, the honeymooners holding hands. It was so nice to be able to really take it in. People think the seabed is dead and empty, but I can assure you, it is not. As well as the original coral, new coral was growing on artificial beds that the government had dropped in the sea to help the animals survive. It was growing an abundance of life which crackled merrily. Chris took us up to these structures to get a proper view. They had been forged into animal shapes such as octopi or turtles and were so big we took turns one by one swimming through them.

After what felt like too short a time, we started to make a slow ascent. The ascent itself took about 15 minutes and followed a weighted line with our instructor checking his dive watch for time and pressure. Despite only being 12 meters, you have to ascend slowly for your body to adjust to the pressure. Ascend too quickly and you can inflict damage. If you’re diving really deep and you don’t ascend in a measured controlled way, your spine which has been compressed with the pressure, doesn’t have enough time to decompress. Permanent spine damage or even paralysis can be caused.

But we were in no such danger.

Once again on the surface, we inflated our BC vests and swam back to the boat on our backs. A safe distance from the two honeymooners, I lifted the wetsuit away from one of my legs and did a long, warm wee.

Back onto the boat, we removed our equipment and eveyone headed back to land. We all felt tired but very happy.Overall I was really pleased with the day, despite the blip in the middle. I felt proud of myself for rallying round and powering through.

As we pulled back onto shore everyone stood up and prepared to disembark. When it was my turn I stood on the edge of the boat as the others had done and just as I was about to make my graceful descent I fell off, rucksack and all.

Oh, the humility.

Everyone saw. Luckily one of the girls next to me caught my rucksack preventing it from going in with me.

There’s something about the sound of 6 women going ‘OH!’ in chorus that I haven’t forgotten.

On the way down I smacked my fanny hard.

Charlotte tried to console me saying she’d done that a million times. But I bet she hadn’t puked out her nose on the same day too.

All in all, I felt that was an appropriate way to round off the day.

BBD


Footnotes: despite the weather and other minor blips I loved that day and I loved that diving school. The atmosphere was lovely, the instructors were so patient and helpful and there was no sales pitch (well, a small one but not pushed hard). Unfortunately there are no pictures as unqualified divers aren’t allowed to bring a camera for safety reasons, so my description and your imagination will have to do.

Big Blue Diving has a solid reputation on the island and has been endorsed by companies such as Tripadvisor. It is PADI and SSI qualified and works hard to support conservation. I’ll leave a link here in case anyone wants more information, and Trip Advisor reviews here. Ultimately, choose the diving school that is best for you – there’s plenty of good ones on Koh Tao to choose from. As with the elephants, (post here) do your research, check their qualifications and check their reviews. Thailand is one of the cheapest and best places to get certified; thousands of people a year come here to do it, but make an informed choice.
Fun fact: For me it was a toss up between Big Blue and Koh Tao Diving. KT Diving is the home of the 3 men who rescued the Thai boys in the cave…

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